Around The Town

Paulanne Simmons Unscripted

Devices and Gimmicks

March 27, 2023: A device is a plan or a method with a particular aim. A gimmick is a trick intended to attract attention, business or publicity. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, especially in theater.

Devices and Gimmicks

March 27, 2023: A device is a plan or a method with a particular aim. A gimmick is a trick intended to attract attention, business or publicity. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, especially in theater.

A play opens with a loud crash that almost frightens everyone out of their seats. The F-bomb is repeated so many times the play is lengthened by several minutes. Actors shed their clothing for contrived reasons. These are gimmicks dear to the hearts of many directors. But not all innovative staging is gimmickry.

When in 2003, Malibu Mines staged Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with all the women over six feet tall and all the men little people (formerly known as dwarfs), it was an ironic comment on a world where men are supposed to rule and women submit. When twenty years later, director Jamie Lloyd puts the actors in Amy Herzog’s version of A Doll’s House on a revolving turntable for no obvious reason, it’s a gimmick.

When in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town the Stage Manager broke the fourth wall to address the audience, providing background information and interpretation, Wilder created a dialogue between the author and the audience. When Maps, the narrator in Emily Feldman’s The Best We Could, addresses the audience to deliver unnecessary information that is repeated by the actors, it’s a gimmick.

Gimmicks are most destructive in revivals fueled by the director’s ego. Daniel Fish’s gritty, violent interpretation of Oklahoma! was more about Daniel Fish than the musical. A year later, Ivo van Hove did an even more thorough job destroying West Side Story, which was mercifully shut down by the pandemic.

Often gimmicks are so clever they overwhelm the storyline. Audiences leave discussing how this or that was done, often not questioning why. Even theater critics are impressed.

But make no mistake. A device is a device, and a gimmick is a gimmick. Pay attention to the device. Don’t be fooled by the gimmick.